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Parent Involvement in the Wake of the College Admissions Scandal

Suzanne Shaffer

The Department of Justice recently filed 50 indictments involving the bribing of college-centered entities to assure students were admitted to certain universities. At the heart of the scandal were celebrities and top tier institutions like USC, Stanford and Yale.

This news has rocked the college admissions world. Independent college counselors and the schools themselves have been forced to re-evaluate their involvement and re-examine their practices. Many parents are doing the same thing.

What can we learn?

There's already so much competition to get into college, and this kind of illegal behavior causes many parents to fret and fume more than they might already. Understandably they wonder: How many students were denied admission because these other students were pushed to the front of the line? Can my student receive a fair evaluation if others are paying to bypass the standard admission criteria?

Quite honestly, this type of “pay to play” has been going on for decades. Parents have donated substantial amounts of money to colleges to secure their student a place in an incoming class. Buildings go up, foundations are established. The only difference is these are considered acceptable practices.

I suggest we acknowledge, for now, that aspects of the college admissions process will continue to be mysterious and unfair and ask ourselves some different questions:

  • Why do parents feel the need to go this far to assure their student gets into an elite college?
  • Why are we, as parents, often so concerned about a college name? Do we put too much emphasis on where our student goes rather than focusing on why they should move on to higher learning?

This type of scandal certainly causes us to examine how much we are involved in college prep and whether we need to step back and let our students take more control. With everything related to the start of college, you hear about “letting go.” You don’t have to let go of your student just yet, but you can let go of the angst inspired by this particular news story. Remember the goal: a well-prepared and well-adjusted student on a campus where they can thrive and be happy.

Let's look at parental involvement and investment in a practical, clear-eyed way.

How much do parents invest in college prep?

First, most of us do want college for our children. A study from Child Trends asked parents about their expectations for academic achievement. Across all demographics, 68 percent of parents who responded expected that their student would attend post-secondary education, receiving a bachelor’s degree or higher. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, of the 2.9 million youth aged 16 to 24 who graduated from high school between January and October 2017, about 1.9 million (66.7%) were enrolled in college that autumn. Clearly there’s a correlation between parent expectations and students striving to meet those expectations.

Higher education is a goal for the majority of American families and parents are more involved than ever in the college prep process — both personally and financially. We invest time and money to ensure our students get the best shot at the college of their dreams. Here’s what that looks like.

Extracurricular activities

In a 2017 survey by Capitol One, more than a third of families surveyed planned to spend over $1,000 per child on school and after-school activity fees during the academic year, and 20% expected to shell out $2,000+ per child. Three percent would be spending more than $10,000 a year.

Test prep

Test prep can be a substantial expense but can pay off in huge dividends both in scholarships and merit aid awards based on test scores. Self-guided SAT/ACT study tools such as books and software typically cost $10–$50. Online study courses range from $70–$500 and instructor-led classes typically cost $75–$1,000. Private tutoring (in person or online) for the SAT or ACT runs $75–$250 per hour.

College visits

Campus tours cost anywhere from nothing (when taken virtually, on the college website) to the price of a tank of gas to an investment of thousands of dollars for airfare, lodging and meals on the road. There is a time investment as well. Such college visits, however, can be crucial to helping your student fully engage in the college search process and ultimately making an informed choice.

College admissions counselors

Pricing for private college consultants varies greatly. Cost is structured either hourly ($200/hour is the average) or arranged as a package deal with some packages costing upward of $6,000.

Application and test registration fees

A traditional application to a college or university will cost $25–$75, with elite schools charging close to $100. Add to that test-taking fees (SAT, ACT, AP) from $50 per test and higher. (Students pay to take tests and pay again later to submit scores to schools.) These fees quickly add up. Note: fees can be waived for families who qualify based on financial need; your student can get help with this from their high school guidance counselor.

Finally, there's lots of your own personal time and energy — harder to measure. But this is something most of us are happy to give to our offspring. It's what parents do.

So, as you can see, offering even a minimal amount of help can mean a substantial investment. It all depends on your ability and willingness to pay.

How can parents help without hurting?

In a recent Kaplan Test Prep survey, 75% of admissions officers from over 350 colleges said parents should be “somewhat involved” in the admissions process, stepping in only when their student asks them. Just 18% recommend parents be “very involved” (guiding their student every step of the way) with only one percent saying they should be “extremely involved.”

It’s a rare student who doesn’t need and want help navigating the maze of college prep. Applying to college takes organizational strategy and planning — so many deadlines to keep track of, decisions to make, and information to juggle. Students who get guidance are less stressed during the process and achieve better results.

Okay, we’re committed to helping but don’t want to “over-parent.” How to best direct your energy without taking over?

  • Encourage career exploration. Taking personality and interest assessments early in high school can help students understand what areas of study and professional fields might appeal to them. Job shadowing can also help them decide what direction to go after high school.
  • Discuss money and come up with a plan for paying for college. It’s crucial that your student understand the cost of college and how much you are willing to pay. If you are not able to fund four years of higher education through family income and savings, your student should be aware that scholarship money or merit aid will need to make up the difference. Explain about the dangers of graduating with too much student loan debt.
  • Provide tutoring if necessary. If you see your student struggling in some of their courses or getting overwhelmed by the pressure to do well on standardized tests, you can step in and offer to help them find a tutor. The amount you spend is entirely up to you. Before you decide to help financially, your student should also be personally invested in the tutoring process and ready to put in the time and effort needed to improve.
  • Help with scheduling. Many parents create shared calendars on smartphones which help them stay aware of important college application-related deadlines. With everything students have going on, you’re not a helicopter parent if you occasionally send a quick text or email reminder about something that’s coming up.
  • Assist in scholarship searches. You can help by paying attention to local news and online information. Keep your eye open for scholarship events hosted in the community and by the high school counseling office. Search for scholarship possibilities while waiting to pick up your student from athletic practice or sitting at the doctor’s office. Set up a shared Google spreadsheet and your student can research the guidelines and apply.
  • Give advice when asked and participate in decision making. Your student will need and ask for your advice. Just be thoughtful about not projecting your own wants and needs on them. You'll be rewarded by their appreciation for you and your support — and by how good it feels to watch them achieve something through their own efforts.


Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been featured in print and online on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News College, TeenLife, Smart College Visit, Road2College and more.
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